06/01/2016 15:01 GMT | Updated 06/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Women in Business Q&A: Jacqui Lewis, President and Managing Director, Audley Travel US

Jacqui Lewis went from conducting her first travel business from her college dorm room to sitting in the board room at TUI travel after selling her company in 2004. She then went on to manage an international portfolio of travel companies for TUI before retiring in 2011. It was over a lunch meeting with the Chairman of Audley, her former Managing Director at TUI, that Jacqui had her first "ah ha" moment when she learned about Audley's value proposition. She felt so passionately about the project that she accepted the lead role in expanding the brand to the North American market. Since then, she has worked nonstop to spread the word about Audley Travel and maintain the core principles and build off the 20 years of experience that have made the company so successful in the UK. Jacqui also is a devoted mom to two adopted children and lives just outside of Boston.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

My sister died when I was 12 and my mother died when I was 19 years old. Our family was never short on love but my life was always about survival and making things happen for myself. I think watching them both go at such an early age made me realize that I have to get what I can from the life and the time I was given. I learned you create your own possibilities in life and you can move past your own resistance to go for what you want. I have never been afraid to take risks, think big and go for something that I believe in. From a young age I was also always involved in playing sports really got what it means to bring passion to the game and I believe you need that same level of passion in business. Being part of a team and working toward a common goal, learning to support and challenge each other, learning to accept failure but never give up are just some of the lessons learned on the court and on the field. Playing competitive sports also taught me the value of a good team and a good coach. I have always worked hard to find the right team and tried to make sure I lead with passion and try to be the best possible coach. Those experiences really shaped me both personally and professionally.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Audley Travel?

I am an entrepreneur at heart. I started a business from my dorm room at Penn State and ended up with one of the largest leisure student travel businesses in the country. My partner and I sold it in 2004 to First Choice Holidays, a UK business that eventually merged with TUI, one the world's largest travel companies. I was so passionate about the business. I stayed on even after my golden handcuffs were unlocked to manage a portfolio of companies in the UK, US and Canada. I gained a lot of experience working with a company with an aggressive growth plan that was publicly traded. I learned so much from the different leaders I worked with and enjoyed the entire ride. Between my own entrepreneurial edge and the learning to work within a larger organization, Audley was like a dream come true. I had decided to retire when I left TUI. The Chairman of the Board at Audley was my former sector Managing Director at TUI, Richard Prosser. He was a great leader and someone I really respected. When he told me about Audley, it was too good to resist. Being able to create the U.S. business from the ground up fed my entrepreneurial drive but I came to the market with proven product, systems, amazing support and funding. Besides, I was too young to retire but I wouldn't have gotten back in the game unless the opportunity was the right one.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Audley Travel?

The highlights for me start with the people. The Audley family is a great one and I have been fortunate enough to work alongside some incredible individuals. The opportunity to start with a vision for a source market expansion, and be chosen to make that vision a reality, has been really exciting. I am really proud of the work we do and the expertise our Country Specialists bring to the U.S. office. Tailor-made travel really does exist in the way it was meant to, and we have brought that to the table. The challenge has been hiring as fast as we are growing. We invest a lot in our team and only hire the best to join our growing family. Because the concept of specializing versus the generalist travel agent model is so new to the United States, finding Country Specialists is challenging considering the demand.

What advice can you offer women who would like a career in the travel industry?

There are so many ways to become involved in the travel industry. If you have a passion for travel and want to get into the industry, you really just need to get your foot in the door at any level and get some experience. It is an industry that rewards passion and offers so many opportunities that you just need to get going!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I have always struggled to understand this question because I believe in being passionate in work and life equally. If I bring my "A" game to the office and at home in my personal life, the balance comes naturally. It doesn't mean that sometimes one doesn't have to take priority over the other and that those choices aren't always easy. For me it just means loving all parts of my life equally and giving them what they need, when they need it. When you do that you create balance in all parts of your life.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

I think there are a lot of issues for women in the workplace, highlighted by the fact that just over 14% of executive positions are held by women in the U.S. As a female executive I have a unique opportunity to create a workplace culture and environment that promotes openness, invites everyone to participate and values contribution above all else. We have a generous maternity/paternity policy, equal pay across the business, opportunities for promotions, and I am looking at flex time now to better support family schedules. You can naturally inspire women to step up and have confidence in their abilities. I do hope we start inspiring young women to break these confidence barriers. It needs to start in the home and with the culture we create for our young girls. In the words of Madeleine Albright, "There is a place in hell for women who don't help other women."

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I have been fortunate to have many great mentors in my life. Every one of them had one common attribute and it was confidence. They all were able to help me see my own potential and push me to succeed, learn from my failures, not accept less than I was capable of and stay centered and grounded. From my softball coach in high school to my former business partner through every stage of my career, I have been lucky to have amazing mentors in my business and personal life.

What other female leaders do you admire and why?

I have always admired Susan Wojcicki of Google. She was employee No. 16 at Google and the company started in her garage. She was responsible for driving revenue for Google's ads and commerce and became CEO of YouTube. She is a brilliant woman who also is an advocate for the company culture and a mother of five. I have also admired Melinda Gates for the work she has done with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Her contributions to create change on a global philanthropic level are extraordinary. The work the foundation does to help lift the poorest out of hunger and poverty and develop technology to help save lives in developing countries is extraordinary. I am fascinated at how the foundation looks to tackle challenges on a global level. Malala Yousafzai is also an extraordinary woman who has had more courage and humility than any female I have experienced in my life-time, at the age of 17. She is an inspiration for woman's rights to education and human rights and a great role-model for young women.

What do you want Audley Travel to accomplish in the next year?

We are headed for 70% growth YOY and I want to make sure we maintain the level of expertise, service and quality that our clients expect. We agreed when the US offices opened that expertise and excellence in delivering exceptional travel experiences would not be compromised for the sake of growth. As we embark on adding tailor-made travel to Europe to our portfolio of destinations, we are being careful to take our time and get it right, and listen closely to what our clients want that the market doesn't yet offer. The brand has always had the customer at the center and we need to make sure that doesn't change as we drive rapid growth. We have a great culture and managing the business as it grows will be both a challenge and an opportunity.